Gardening for Butterflies

Butterflies add active beauty to any outdoor space. Invite these "flying flowers" into your garden by offering water, sun, shelter, and host and nectar plants.


Essential Garden Elements

Support the entire life cycle by providing the essential elements for each stage of a butterfly's life. Adult butterflies lay their eggs on host plants, where the egg remains until the larva, or caterpillar, hatches and feeds on the plant. The caterpillar will then need a sheltered area, such as one with trees, shrubs, or a woodpile, where it can safely form a pupa, or chrysalis. At last it will emerge as a vibrant butterfly, when it will feed on a variety of nectar plants.

Shelter continues to be important to protect this delicate creature from wind. Water, whether supplied naturally or artificially, provides the butterfly with essential nutrients. Sun is critical to support both the growth of host and nectar plants, and to warm the butterfly, helping it fly. Pollak suggests providing a rotation of nectar plants, with three to four in bloom at a time, between April and October.

If you do not have room for one or more of these elements in your garden, find out which are available in other natural areas within 100 feet, and supplement them with resources in your own garden.

Enjoy the Show

"A relaxing part of gardening is being able to plant something and watch the activity that results from it," says Pollak, who notes that hummingbirds are often attracted to butterfly gardens as well.

Butterflies must land before they can use their proboscis (strawlike structure) to drink nectar. They prefer flat plants with widespread petals. Hummingbirds prefer to hover over plants and often select tubular flowers. Both require a selection of freshly blooming plants and prefer masses of flowers to single blooms.

Butterfly watching is at its height in May and June. However, the amount of time spent in each stage of life varies between species from weeks to months, and can fluctuate with changing weather patterns in a given year. To attract a specific species, time the availability of essential elements in your garden with its life cycle.

Find Inspiration

Butterflies can often be enjoyed at the Garden, especially in the English Oak Meadow and English Walled Garden.

Children and adults delight in the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition on the Learning Campus. There, they can step inside a 2,800-square-foot white mesh enclosure to see up to 500 butterflies native to South America, Asia, North America, Africa, and Illinois. The "Blooms" portion of the exhibition features nectar plants.

"It's a great garden theme for kids," says Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist for the Chicago Botanic Garden. "The whole metamorphosis (physical transformation) is wonderful to observe."